Theaters filled with new movies as summer season approaches

Joaquin Phoenix in Beau Is Afraid (A24)

Last year the movie industry struggled to get back on its feet after being knee-capped by the Covid-19 pandemic for the better part of a year. Local theaters basically could count on only a couple of new releases a week.

That’s beginning to change.

Last week six new movies opened in Northwest Arkansas theaters, and this week five new films are debuting locally, and we are still two weeks away from “the summer movie season” which traditionally begins the first weekend of May.

That’s great for film fans who go to the theater regularly. As one of those, I’m hoping the broader selection of movies will also entice the more casual movie viewers to return to the theater more often as well.

As nice as it is to settle in at home to watch a movie, some films just aren’t the same unless viewed on the big screen among fellow movie-goers. As far as habits go, going to the movies isn’t as bad as many others.

If you’re considering going to the movies this weekend, here’s a rundown of what’s new this week locally on the big screen.

Beau is Afraid (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback)

(R) 1 hr. 41 min.
» Watch trailer

Director Ari Aster’s new film starring Joaquin Phoenix is one of the most challenging watches in recent years, according to reports.

It’s weird.

Eschewing traditional cinematic storytelling, the film has been haled as a directorial tour de force of surrealism as well as a crazy, impenetrable chunk of self-important wackiness.

In other words, this is not a regular movie. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that’s a good or a bad thing.

Chevalier (Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)

(R) 1 hr. 47 min.
» Watch trailer

If history is your thing, this biographical and inspiring story of the illegitimate son of a French plantation owner and an African slave, Joseph Bologne, might be worth checking out.

Bologne rises to unlikely heights in pre-French Revolution Paris, based on his considerable talents as a musician, fencer, and lover to Queen Marie Antoinette.

While the 1-hour and 47-minute movie leaves a lot out of Bologne’s interesting history on he sideline, the film is reportedly never boring while deftly hitting the high points.

Directed by Stephen Williams from a screenplay by Stefani Robinson, the film starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the title role is getting strong reviews after debuting last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Think of the movie as more of an introduction to the man rather than his whole story. If the movie acts as an inducement for viewers to seek out more information about the man, then the film has more than served its purpose.

Evil Dead Rise (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne)

(R) 1 hr. 36 min.
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This film may be the fifth installment of the Evil Dead franchise, but the basic story isn’t just a retread.

The movie is receiving excellent reviews for a horror flick and is being described as genuinely terrifying, particularly if flesh-possessing demons make your skin crawl and your head spin.

Written and directed by Lee Cronin for producers Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, the film has been described as a blood bath that doesn’t rely only on jump scares to frighten you.

The basic plot is that on a visit to see her older sister Ellie and her three children in Los Angeles, Beth finds a strange old spell book that winds up unleashing a gaggle of demons who harass the family in alarming ways. This horror picture is reported to be not one for the faint of heart.

“Evil Dead Rise” was originally produced to play on HBO Max, but when the streamer’s new ownership viewed the movie, the plan changed. It was so frightening that executives figured it could make them some dough in theaters before debuting on the streaming service.

Somewhere in Queens (Malco Razorback, Malco Towne)

(R) 1 hr. 47 min.
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Who doesn’t love Ray Romano?

The star of TV Neo-classic “Everyone Loves Raymond” actually co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Stegemann and directed this family dramedy about a father, Leo, (Romano) who roots a bit too hard for his basketball-playing son, Sticks (Jacob Ward). Sticks has a legitimate shot at fulfilling his and his dad’s hoop dreams of earning a college scholarship, if his downheartedness over being dumped by his girlfriend, Dani, doesn’t ankle his efforts.

The film also features Laurie Metcalf as Leo’s wife and Sticks’ mom, Angela, and Sadie Stanley as Dani, Sticks’ free-spirited, on-again-off-again girlfriend.

So far the movie has great early IMDb (9/10) and Rotten Tomatoes scores (94 percent).

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne)

(R) 2 hr. 5 min.
» Watch trailer

This is director Guy Ritchie’s best reviewed film in quite some time, featuring a gripping war story with star Jake Gyllenhaal at its heart. The film is a departure from his snappy, quippy style that I admittedly enjoy. The movie is reportedly a finely crafted war drama set during the U.S.-Afghanistan conflict.

Gyllenhaal plays U.S. Army Master Sgt. John Kinley who is saved by Ahmed (Dar Salim), an Afghan mechanic who becomes the U.S. platoon’s interpreter. Ahmed’s end goal is to escape the Taliban and Afghanistan in trade for helping the U.S.

Ahmed and Kinley grow to trust each other, and that bond is at the crux of the film. Though it would be easier for each of them to abandon the other, both have too much honor to do the easy thing.

Classic Corner

As you may have guessed if you’ve read any of my movie columns, Turner Classic Movies is my TV’s default setting. I may not end up watching what’s playing, but I do want to check there first. I love old movies.

However, I was stunned earlier this week when looking at what’s playing on TCM this weekend when I discovered that “Superman: The Movie” (1978) and “Batman” (1989) were playing as a double feature Sunday night at 7 p.m. Central.

Now, I realize at 55 years old that I’ve reached the edge of “old” or have already passed beyond it. My knees remind me every time I move, but it took me back a little bit when I saw that TCM — the place where old movies live — was actually showing films that I saw in theaters.

That’s rarely been the case until recently, and it never really hit me until I saw that these two films that I doted on as a kid in the case of “Superman: The Movie” and as college student with “Batman” were now eligible to played on TCM. Both can also be streamed on HBO Max, soon to be just Max.

Superman: The Movie (1978)

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Superman: The Character turned 85 years old earlier this week on April 18, and in celebration of the super-hero’s landmark anniversary, it seems appropriate to look back at the grandfather of big-budget, super-hero movies “Superman: The Movie.”

Off the bat, I’ll let you know I’m biased concerning this film. While I wouldn’t rank it among my top 10 favorites, I would rate seeing it as a 10-year-old kid with my older brother as one of my favorite movie-going experiences.

I have never anticipated a movie more than I did seeing “Superman: The Movie,” unless it was its sequel three years later.

The film’s marketing slogan was “You Will Believe a Man Can Fly.” With the advances in technology, that doesn’t necessarily hold true today, but it was as close to being on-target as possible when the film opened nationally on Dec. 15, 1978.

Director Richard Donner (“Lethal Weapon” series, “The Omen,” “Goonies”) did all fans of Superman a favor by taking the character and the movie as seriously as he could for the period, and the film he shot was an epic parable of heart, hope, and humanity.

Marlon Brando, who played Superman’s biological father Jor-El; Glenn Ford, who played Superman’s adoptive Earthly father Jonathan Kent; and Gene Hackman, who played Superman’s arch-enemy Lex Luthor, gave the film legitimacy and clout, but the movie belongs to then newcomer Christopher Reeve, who convincingly played the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent.

Without Reeve’s convincing turns as both characters, the film would have flopped instead of becoming the blockbuster it was in 1978-79, and the classic that it is today.

Just as Superman was the blueprint for all super heroes that followed his first appearance in Action Comes No. 1 on April 18, 1938, Donner’s film became the blueprint for the super-hero origin film. Marvel studio head Kevin Feige has said it is one of his favorite films, and that it serves as a blueprint for his work with Marvel’s characters.

While we could all see through the flimsy Clark Kent disguise, Reeve’s performance as Superman and Clark was distinctive enough for you to go along with the gag and suspend belief. His Clark was nerdy and klutzy enough to sell the bit, and his Superman radiated good will and hope. It’s an indelible performance that was the engine behind the film.

Likewise, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane worked splendidly in the context of the film, and her chemistry with Reeve was fun to. Lois’ awe of Superman parallels Clark’s awe of her, setting up a wonderful love triangle that’s charming and poignant.

The scene where Superman makes his first public appearance to save a falling Lois in mid air from a crashing helicopter is thrilling. It contains one of the best lines in any super-hero movie.

Lois responds to Superman’s assertion, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you” with the classic, “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”

Several sequences of Superman thwarting crimes across the city of Metropolis with his amazing powers follow, even one of him saving a cat out of a tree.

The scenes are exciting, humorous, and wonderful. They truly capture the heart of Superman’s heroism.

Luthor and particularly his bumbling stooge of an underling Otis (Ned Beatty) will feel cheesy to modern viewers. They were in the late 1970s.

However, Luthor’s fiendish gambit to increase the value of his land holdings in California by firing one nuclear missile southwest at the San Andreas Fault and the other northeast to New Jersey not only tests Superman’s powers but also his heart and conscience.

Superman wants to stop the missile headed for California first because Lois and his pal Jimmy Olsen are there, but in order to escape a Kryptonite trap, he is forced to promise to stop the one headed for New Jersey first. By keeping his promise, Superman sets up a scenario that has dire consequences for Lois.

The quandary was so well conceived that “The Dark Night” director Christopher Nolan had his Joker devise a somewhat similar scenario for Batman to face as a tip of the hat in his 2008 film, which many critics hale as the best super-hero movie to date.

Batman (1989)

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While “Superman: The Movie” is the seminal big-budget super-hero film, if not for the success of director Tim Burton’s “Batman” our modern film landscape would likely be tremendously different.

For better or worse, super-hero fare has dominated cinemas for more than a decade, just like Westerns did from the late 1940s well into the 1960s.

While Marvel films remain to be all the rage — despite the lackluster box office “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” — it was Warner Bros.’ Batman films that laid the groundwork for the success Marvel has enjoyed since the release of “Iron-Man” in 2008.

If “Batman” had not made super-hero movies socially acceptable and financially successful as fodder for films in 1989, Marvel never would have had the opportunity to reach the heights it has.

As a 34-year-old film “Batman” has aged rather well in some ways and not in others. Perhaps it’s because Burton’s Gotham City and his Dark-night Detective wasn’t created to live in a space that’s not all that similar to our real world.

The film is gritty and dark, but it’s not at all realistic and is tinged with enough humor and irony to make most of it work, even today. The picture lives in a fantasy land filled with brave heroes and bold villains like Micheal Keaton’s Batman/Bruce Wayne and Jack Nicholson’s Joker/Jack Napier.

Nicholson is over the top as the crazed super-villain, who is molesting Gotham City by poisoning its consumer items that are used to clean up and put a spit-shine on the city’s decaying citizenry. His performance is dynamic, gauche, and a bit chilling in places, even all this decades later.

Keaton, who up until this film, excelled at depicting mania, gives a subtle performance of a man who is a pressure cooker about to blow in the face of the moral decay he’s forced abide with as a citizen of his beloved Gotham.

The movie wisely begins with Batman taking action with a scene ripped straight out of the character’s first adventure in “Detective Comics” No. 27 from 1939 instead of starting with the character’s origin, which is deftly handled in a number of flashbacks.

Keaton and Nicholson are The Show playing the opposite side of the same coin, but Kim Basinger as Vickie Vale and Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox add some additional spice to the affair.

Certainly the movie can be nitpicked today for what it lacks, particularly on the technological front. Keaton clearly can’t move his head very easily or very well in the Bat cowl, for example, but the movie was unlike anything anyone had seen when it opened in 1989, and it spawned a Bat craze that’s still alive today.

Simply put, Batman is one of the most bankable and enduring film characters in the history of the film industry, and while there were a couple of cheap serials in the 1940s and the Adam West TV series of the 1960s that preceded it, Burton’s “Batman,” was the certainly the catalyst for that popularity.